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Without Her

By Rosalind Brackenbury. (Delphinium, 277 pages, $16.)

Now in their late 60s, Claudia and Hannah have been friends since they were smart, rebellious girls at an English boarding school. They went to Cambridge and then enjoyed a year as roommates in "swinging London." Claudia followed a feckless American boyfriend to California, became a filmmaker and then a professor in Virginia, and Hannah married the good-hearted Philip, with whom she runs a publishing house. After growing apart, the women reconnected, with Claudia making summer visits to Hannah and Philip at their vacation home in Provence.

Claudia has just finished teaching a class on the 1959 Italian film "L'Avventura" when Philip calls her from Provence, telling her that Hannah is missing.

After seeing her longtime lover, Alexandre, in Paris, Claudia arrives in Provence. She plays "resident therapist" to Philip and her friend's grown twins, Melissa and Piers, as they wait for Hannah or word from police. Claudia reminisces about her enigmatic friend's own "adventures," and can't shake the feeling that Alexandre and Hannah had an affair.

"Without Her" then takes a surprising turn, probing the depths and limits of friendship and forgiveness. Rosalind Brackenbury provides thought-provoking meditations on sex, aging, death, friendship, jealousy, family and career. How well do we ever know anyone else?